US President Barack Obama.  Picture: REUTERS
US President Barack Obama. Picture: REUTERS

THE government has "strongly condemned" Israel’s decision to build 3,000 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and, for once, its position is correct, balanced and morally justified. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that continued expansion of the settlements on land captured during the 1967 six-day war will eventually make a "two-state solution" to the conflict nigh on impossible.

He is abusing Israel’s strategic value to the West in the region by ignoring allies’ pleas for restraint and thereby increasing tension in an already highly volatile part of the world. The tragedy is that his main motivation — there really is no practical alternative to the two-state solution other than perpetual war — is domestic political considerations.

Israel goes to the polls next month, and while Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party is on track to win, helped in no small measure by the army’s recent bombardment of Hamas rocket launch sites in Gaza, rightwing orthodox religious groups have considerable influence in Israeli society. They demanded a firm response to the United Nations’s (UN’s) de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood on November 29, and what better way to keep religious zealots on side than to revive settlement plans that would help scuttle the two-state solution they reject?

Likud’s politicking plays into the hands of radicals on both sides and is deplorable, but the Palestinian Authority’s insistence on pressing ahead with symbolic UN recognition was equally unwise — its leaders were urged by European diplomats in particular to delay the UN vote until after the Israeli election, but this advice was ignored. Now there is a risk that new Jewish settlements will be built in the sensitive E1 sector of the West Bank, bisecting the territory and cutting most of its Palestinian residents off from East Jerusalem, the planned capital of an independent Palestinian state.

Mr Netanyahu’s move was no doubt also motivated by anger at the fact that many of Israel’s traditional allies supported the Palestinian motion. Israel sees itself as an island of democratic modernity in a sea of Islamic extremism, and it cannot understand why Europe in particular, which has suffered its share of terror attacks by Islamic extremists, doesn’t support it unconditionally.

SA’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation expressed concern over the inability of the UN Security Council to take meaningful action to move the Middle East peace process forward.

This raises the question why this is the case.

The answer is that Mr Netanyahu is not far from the mark when he points out that Israel has long been one of few reliable allies to the West in the region. The Cold War may be over, but the battle for global influence is still going on behind the scenes. Just as the civil war in Syria has become a proxy for the religious wrestling match between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the rivalry between the US and Russia, so Israel continues to provide a useful buffer between East and West.

It is no secret that US President Barack Obama opposes Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian land for new Jewish settlements, but he has up to now been restrained by his own precarious political position and the fact that the US Congress controls the purse strings and its Republican majority is ideologically biased in Israel’s favour.

However, as a second-term president who has just won re-election with a greater than expected majority, Mr Obama is now in a position to show the courage of his convictions. He should call Mr Netanyahu’s bluff and warn him publicly that if one more Jewish home is built on Palestinian land, the US will no longer use its Security Council veto to protect Israel from sanction. This may the best opportunity Mr Obama will get to contribute meaningfully to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.